Cuba Nostalgia – from Marta’s Cuban American Kitchen

(Ed. Note: This post was supposed to run last Thursday, right before the Cuba Nostalgia Convention. Somehow, it was never published so I am doing so now, pa que puedan comer arroz con pollo on Memorial Weekend. You can also check out this food related post today at My Big Fat Cuban Family.)
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Before our lives were turned upside down in 1959, most Sunday afternoons were spent at my grandmother’s house in Havana. We would be dressed impeccably as it was always a special occasion. She found a way to fit everyone – aunts, uncles, cousins – around her table and she usually made Arroz con Pollo. Enough to feed the small army that made up our big, fat, Cuban family.
The fragrance of the saffron, chicken and rice will always be tied to my warmest memories of the abundance of the classic Cuban table. The linens were crisp and white, the silverware polished. The conversation was always boisterous and happy. The feeling of belonging and being cared for always seemed to be evident at that table.
When we left Cuba, the Arroz con Pollo became a special occasion food, served for company and for birthday celebrations. My mom stopped making it altogether a few years ago, but she passed the recipe down to us. Now we maintain the Arroz con Pollo tradition in our home. Every birthday or graduation, every time I want to impress someone, this is what I serve. We make it for dinner on Christmas Day as a change from the lechón that is served the night before on Nochebuena. This is my specialty. It is what I will be serving you when you tell me you’re going to be in Southern California and I insist that you join us for dinner.
My daughter, Amy, always volunteers to cook this now. I have taught her the way my mother taught me, the way my grandmother taught her. Whenever her friends have a birthday celebration, they always put in a request. I think my grandmother would have been delighted by this. She was that way – the more people around the table, the better, or as my husband would say, “That’s so Cuban!” =D
I’ve never been able to find Arroz con Pollo that is as good in any restaurant. Once you try this recipe, I think you’ll agree. To me, it evokes the Cuba of my childhood – Cuba B.C. – a place of warmth and family and of abundance.
I’ll be in Miami this weekend for Cuba Nostalgia. I’m thinking it is probably a great place to revisit the happy memories of my youth and have a wonderful time savoring the food and music of our inimitable culture. If my mom is up to it, I will bring her along for a few hours. For sure, I will be remembering those wonderful Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s table.
Amy and I will be in the Babalú booth on Saturday night – if you’re there, please stop by and say hello. We’re looking forward to meeting you and giving you a warm, Cuban hug.
I’ll be the one with the tears in my eyes because I have some Cuba Nostalgia of my own.
Arroz con Pollo de Perez-Puelles
2 to 3 lbs. Chicken pieces (I prefer boneless, skinless, breasts, but always include thighs and/or drumsticks with bones and skin – they add to the flavor)
4 cloves of garlic (minced)
1 large onion (diced)
1 bell pepper (diced)
1 small can tomato sauce
1 jar red diced pimientos (reserve a little bit for garnish)
1 can peas (reserve about a third for garnish)
1 can asparagus (cut up)
½ tsp. Salt
½ tsp. Pepper
2 Bay leaves
1 tsp. Cumin
1 tsp. Oregano
2 cups dry white wine
1 cup chicken broth
Bitter Orange (powder or marinade)
Olive oil
3 cups rice (long grain)
1 tsp. Bijol or Goya Seasoning con Azafran
3 or 4 threads of saffron – crushed (this is optional)
1) Prepare the chicken broth
2) Coat chicken pieces with bitter orange spice or marinade along with the pressed garlic cloves and marinade for about an hour. (not necessary, but it’s awesome if you have the time)
3) Brown chicken in large frying pan in olive oil – remove to a large pot (or cazuela) after they’re brown
4) To make the sofrito: sauté the onion & pepper in the frying pan (with the bits of garlic and olive oil) until soft, then add tomato sauce, pimientos, peas, asparagus (all with their liquid) salt, pepper, bay leaf, cumin, oregano, wine & broth.
5) Pour in the rice and add the Bijol (or Goya Seasoning) and saffron to color and flavor the rice.
6) Pour all of this over the chicken in the pot.
7) Bring to a boil, then lower to a fast simmer.
8) Cook on medium-low heat for about 40 minutes, then check it and stir it. Rice should be soft and liquid absorbed. If there’s still liquid, keep cooking, checking, & stirring.
9) I like the rice a little soupy, or asopado.
10) Pour reserved peas and pimientos as a garnish over the finished arroz con pollo.

4 thoughts on “Cuba Nostalgia – from Marta’s Cuban American Kitchen”

  1. Marta: Towards the end, even if you have used wine, a tasty version involves pouring some beer (6 to 8 ounces) on the semi-finished product as the evaporated liquid blends in very well with the rice and the other ingredients. Sometimes I also sautee some ham or chorizo, as my mother use to do in Havana, to give the chicken a different kick (although of course she use to complain that when she cooked arroz con pollo in Havana anybody within a two block radius could smell it, whereas here in the USA the chickens had neither olor ni sabor).

  2. Bitter orange is called ‘naranja agria’ in Spanish. It is known as ‘Seville orange.’ I know that in the United States it is grown in Florida and California. You can buy bottled stuff, but there’s nothing like fresh Seville oranges to marinade pork, chicken, beef, lamb, rabbit, goat, duck, turkey, and probably any other meat you might care to cook. Sometimes people substitute it with regular oranges mixed with lemons.

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